The South African pharmaceutical company Aspen has begun production of hundreds of millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine for African countries. To speed up the process, the company is getting a large funding boost from the U.S. government.
Speaking during a virtual press briefing Thursday, Mark Marchick, a top executive for the U.S. International Development Financial Corporation, said Aspen would receive about $712 million to produce vaccine for people in Africa.
"Our consortium of development financing institutions would provide a direct loan to Aspen, among other things, to strengthen their balance sheet with long-term financing, support vaccine production and expand their operations with core operations based in South Africa. This loan will help them increase capacity to support Aspen’s effort to produce vaccines for the continent this year and next year," Marchik said.
Gayle Smith, the U.S. State Department coordinator for the global COVID-19 response, said the investment will help Africa deal with long-term health issues.
“We see this investment as in the short-term a really viable response to the urgent need on the continent for vaccines for COVID and also, importantly, as a long-term investment in the capacity of the continent to increase its own production of this vital goods so there is a greater availability and resilience over time, so it’s a short-term investment with a long-term vision,” Smith said.
It is estimated that the world needs at least 11 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses to at least help communities return to normal lives. So far, less than 2% of Africans have received a vaccine.
The need for vaccine has prompted criminals to exploit Africa’s weak regulatory systems to bring in phony and substandard drugs.
In November, officers from South Africa’s customs and crime unit seized 2,400 fake COVID-19 vaccine doses. Zambian and Chinese nationals were arrested.
In January of this year Nigeria’s food and drug administration advised the public to be aware of nefarious players pushing phony vaccines.
Adebayo Alonge, head of RxAll, an organization that fights counterfeit and substandard pharmaceuticals in Africa using artificial intelligence technology, said African governments need systems to efficiently distribute and keep track of the vaccine.
"They can have selected sites across the country where people can go and be vaccinated. People pre-book online or by SMS and make a record of those people who have come and taken the vaccine at those locations,” Alonge said.
Aspen, which is based in the city of Durban, is slated to produce 400 million doses of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. Distribution will begin in the next few weeks.